[The Day We Go to Temple] 11. The Seasonal Customs of Buddhism and Daily Rituals
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The Seasonal Customs of Buddhism and Daily Rituals
As the time of harvest comes to a close, winter is the season when people prepare for the coming of the new year. The term, “Gyeoul” or winter, comes from “Gyeoseul,” meaning the time to stay at home. Prior to the intense cold, it seems that people, animals, and plants all prepare for winter in the same way, more sleep or hibernation. However, just as a well or cave is warmer in the winter, the people’s minds and bodies become warmer as it gets colder outside. Thus, the custom of sharing with neighbors in need became popular, as well as preparing for the new year and spring. In particular, this is the time to focus on various year-end customs, seeing the old year out and the new year in, during the twelfth month of the lunar year. On the winter solstice, people used to begin preparing for a new year. They called it “Little New Year’s Day,” as the sun is resurrected on that day. Winter consists of the tenth, eleventh, and twelfth months of the lunar calendar. Seasonal markers include Ipdong, the Advent of Winter; Soseol, Minor Snow, Daeseol, Major Snow, Dongji, the Winter Solstice, Sohan, the First Cold, and Daehan, the Great Cold.
Since the ancient times of the thanksgiving rituals of Dongmang during the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. - 668) and Mucheon of the Eastern Ye Kingdom (3rd century B.C.E. - 5th century B.C.E.), the tenth month has been the time for holding a harvest ceremony, wrapping up the gathering of crops, and offering thanks to the gods of heaven and earth. That’s why it is believed that Dangun, the legendary founding father of Gojoseon Kingdom (7th century B.C.E. – 108 B.C.E.), founded the ancient country around this time. Thus, it was designated National Foundation Day. Initially, it was celebrated on the third day of the tenth month according to the lunar calendar, but changed to October 3rd on the solar calendar, and is now observed as a national holiday. Since the old days, the tenth month has been called “Sangdal,” and is regarded as the most sacred month for offering newly-harvested crops to the gods. Likewise, according to popular belief, this was the time for offering new crops to the gods at home and Dangjae, the protector of the village. It was a way for the people to express their appreciation and wishes in the form or worship, and a time for holding memorial services.
In December, Dongji, the Advent of Winter, was highly regarded as one of the major holidays of the seasonal calendar. The winter solstice is around December 22nd on the solar calendar. On this day, though the day is the shortest of the year and the night is the longest, the daytime starts to get longer little by little starting the following day, adding to the symbolism of the resurrection. So, it is called, “The Little Lunar New Year” or “A-Se (亞歲).” According to the Julian calendar, the winter solstice was December 25th, and the day was also considered the day of the sun’s resurrection in the west. For that reason, we know that the date chosen as Jesus’ birthday came from the celebration of the sun’s resurrection in the winter solstice festival. Likewise, a series of customs came into practice, going along with the maximization of the darkness and the resurrection of the sun. The customs of lighting lamps and exorcising maleficent spirits in Dongji may have been based on common beliefs. On the eve of Lunar New Year, there was a popular custom called Susae. In this tradition, a light was lit and people stayed awake all night to watch the first sunrise of the New Year, to rid their lives of evil spirits and pray for good luck. Consequently, among commoners, a saying goes that if one sleeps on New Year’s Eve, one’s eyebrows become white. In addition, during Yeongjongjae, a ceremony held to chase out misfortunes on the New Year’s Eve, Narae, was practiced, a ceremony that involved shooting a type of gun called Yeonjongpo in the palace. The common people extensively practiced the custom of making loud noises, burning bamboo, shooting rifles, and lighting fire crackers.
Out of the twenty-four seasonal markers, Ipdong, the Advent of Winter, takes place around November 7th of the solar calendar, and on the 22nd is Soeol, Minor Snow. Ipdong, at the start of winter, is one of the busiest seasons. People prepare for the coming cold season by making kimchi, a traditional fermented Korean side dish made of vegetables and a variety of seasonings, as well as fermented soybean lumps to make the basic seasonings of soybean paste or soy sauce. In farm villages, people make rice cakes out of newly harvested grains and share them with their neighbors. There is another special custom called Chigyemi, when all the villagers chip in a little to hold a feast for their elders on Ipdong, the start of winter; Dongji, the winter solstice; and Jeseok, the eve of Lunar New Year. Chigyemi means, “pheasant, chicken and rice,” which used to be referred to as a kickback, the cost of dishes for a district magistrate’s dinner table, but it seems that the term has been borrowed as a way to treat the elders in a village like him. On Soseol, or Minor Snow, the first snow falls and thin ice starts to form. There is an old saying, “Thin-layered pants in the beginning of the month become thick in the end.” Another saying goes, “The coldness of Soseol should be bought, even with loans,” which means that when this season is cold, the barley will grow well.
In December by the solar calendar, Daeseol, Major Snow, takes place on the seventh, and Dongji, the winter solstice, is on the twenty-second. Daeseol is the time of the year when it snows the most. Like the saying goes, “Snow is the blanket of barley,” it is known that if it snows hard on this day, the coming winter will not be so cold, and there will be an abundant harvest. As snow covers barley, it warms the barley so that it is less damaged by frost. In particular, with the two seasonal markers of Daeseol and Dongji, the eleventh month of the lunar calendar is the time of winter, and the off-season for farmers wrapping up their harvest of the year and preparing for the New Year.
In January of the solar calendar, Sohan, the First Cold, takes place on the fifth and Daehan, the Great Cold, on the twentieth. This time of year is the coldest, and there are a number of proverbs associated with the weather; “If one dies away from home on Seohan and Daehan, don’t even bother to hold a memorial ceremony for him.” This is a kind of encouragement, meaning that, by overcoming the coldness, one can cultivate the strength to withstand hardships. Though Sohan translates to mean “minor cold,” it is the coldest day in Korea. Thus, there are a number of sayings which indicate the bitterness of the cold of Sohan. “Daehan went to Sohan’s home and died of cold.” “No one dies of cold on Daehan, though it happens on Sohan.” As Daehan is the last of the twenty-four seasonal markers, Singugan, the period between the old and the new - seven days between five days after Daehan, the Great Snow, and three days before Ipchun, the Advent of Spring, used to occur on Jeju Island, at the southern tip of the Korea Peninsula. During this period, people believed that there would be no problems when doing important tasks around the house like moving or fixing things.
* Please note that this writing is an excerpt from the book, "The Day We Go to Temple" and is contained in the winter 2016 edition of the Lotus Lantern magazine under Buddhist Culture Section on page 21~25.